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Wichita language has only one speaker while Cherokee is being revitalized

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(Speaking in Wichita) Reporter: Listen, you're hearing a language that soon will fall silent forever. (Continues in Wichita) Reporter: Here's the story again, in English Doris McLemore (D.M.): A long time ago, Man-Never Known-On-Earth was all alone. Then he made the Earth. He made the first man having the power to carry light. Then he made the first woman: Bright-Shining-Woman Reporter: Doris McLemore is 83 years old, and the last fluent speaker of Wichita, a native American language Reporter: The daughter of a white man and a Wichita mother, she was raised by her Wichita speaking grandparents in rural Oklahoma. Reporter: She remembers a time when the language thrived in her community. D.M.: You could say things in Wichita that were funny, and, you wouldn't dare... the way some of them talked, you wouldn't dare say it in English Reporter: But the dominant English-speaking society gradually destroyed the old ways. Generations of indigenous children were shipped off to boarding schools, forced to learn English, and punished for speaking their mother tongue. D.M.: The white people did not value it; they wanted it to be gone. Just like everything else, they wanted to annihilate all the Indians. Reporter: Now Doris is the only one left. Sometimes, she says, she dreams in Wichita. The Wichita words for Earth and Sky, Joy and Sorrow, will die with her. Reporter: How does that make you feel? D.M.: You know, I never think about it... it's just... it's just the way it is. I just.. I don't dwell on it, I just don't think about it. Reporter: Wichita is just one of thousands of small languages worldwide on the brink of oblivion, scholars say. K. David Harrison: We're seeing an unprecedented pace of language extinction, or language death. Approximately half of the world's languages are considered to be endangered, and we may be loosing a language as often as one every two or three weeks. Reporter: With the death of each language, an immeasurably invaluable piece of humanities inheritance disappears. K. David Harrison: When a community looses its language, they really lose their history, they lose their connection to the past, they lose all of the wisdom and knowledge that has been accumulated through the centuries about how to live in a sustainable manner on this planet. Reporter: But extinction need not be the fate of all small languages. At this school in Tahlequah, Oaklahoma, the Cherokee are fighting hard to keep their language alive for a new generation. Reporter: It's a total immersion program, with all lessons taught in Cherokee, beginning in Kindergarten. Children read and write in the language, using a syllabary developed in the 19th century. Reporter: And a 21st century tool is helping the Cherokee survive: the Askon Godeesk, or, in English, the laptop computer, each one equipped with a Cherokee keyboard. (Teacher speaking, children repeating) Director Samantha Benn-Duke. Samantha Benn-Duke: (I think that) the language is being revitalized, that the language is continuing to grow, or is actually beginning to grow and thrive, where it was stagnating before. Samantha Benn Duke: And they will be bilingual, and multilingual, they will be world citizens, and yes, they will be passing this on to their own children. Reporter: Nine year-old Lauren Hummingbird is already passing on her knowledge to her parents. Lauren Hummingbird: I'm teaching them how to speak Cherokee. They used to take classes, but now they don't. Reporter: So you're the teacher at home? Lauren Hummingbird: Yeah Reporter: It's a glimmer of hope for speakers of other endangered languages, provided they have the resources and the will to fight for cultural survival. Rob Reynolds, Al-Jazeera, Tahlequah, Oaklahoma.

Video Details

Duration: 4 minutes and 23 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Views: 4,730
Posted by: valicore on Feb 8, 2011

The Wichita language has dwindled so that only one fluent speaker remains, 83 year old Doris McLemore is interviewed. Then, a visit is made to a Cherokee language immersion school.

Short video of a report on Al Jazeera English.

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